Wednesday, 21 March 2012


I know I'm clutching at straws here on one of the darkest days of the century thus far, but I repeat, I'm adamant that we should see a small glimmer of hope in the figure of Andy Burnham.

Of course he's a Blairite golem in many respects, but if we're going to retain any faith whatsoever in the Labour Party - and I allow that there are pretty formidable reasons not to - Burnham's visceral left populism seems like the only game in town:

We will remind them every day of the damage they have done to our NHS ... While on a day like today it's hard for me to give any encouragement to people worried about what this government is doing, I can at least say this: that we will repeal this bill at the first opportunity and restore the N in NHS.

I know it's only rhetoric, but at least he's speaking the right language, and with a degree of sincerity and confidence. I can't think of anyone else in the political mainstream doing this in quite the same way.

Note the assertive, instinctive use of our. Not many politicians can get away with that without sounding disingenuous. When we find someone who can, we should be very cautiously optimistic.


Fake Daniels said...

I hate being that guy who immediately comes into the comments... Andy Burnham to enter Labour leadership race with the worst gay voting record of contenders.
Isn't he just using Bevanite nostalgia to work the 'white working-class' angle, and was actually a Brownite - where that kind of Liverpool/Glasgow Roman Catholic social conservatism served for a sole moral compass after the abandoning of any belief in economic justice (his leadership election big idea was 'aspirational socialism'), so just someone exploiting a superficial sympathy with the working class to advance a conservative agenda: a slightly less cunty Phil Woolas?

I almost certainly didn't get what you were trying to say here ;)

Alex Niven said...

No good points. I'm certainly not convinced by Burnham on a great many levels. This was more an attempt to draw attention to the kind of rhetoric, the kind of populist terrain that the Labour Party, if it's to have any future at all, should be owning. I'm having a temporary soft-left spasm out of sheer despairing frustration with this NHS thing and a visceral sense that something pragmatic has to be done to reverse it. So forgive me.

However, I would take issue with the dismissal of the "white working class" angle. I don't see anything inherently wrong with the white working class angle, so long as it's not exclusive and/or racist, and as long as it's not reduced to a media caricature in the manner of Blue Labour or that BBC season a while back. The Left has reached a pretty paralysing phase of postmodern self-criticism and metropolitan narrow-sightedness when the white working class is seen as off bounds.

It seems to me that the abandonment of this Liverpool/Glasgow tendency - ie. the heartlands of British socialism - is exactly what needs redressing. Sure there are appalling elements in this sort of culture but there are also incredibly positive communitarian aspects, and what's happening right now is that Cameron is owning that "white working class" territory because the liberal intelligentsia dismisses it just as it dismisses anything else that comes with unseemly baggage attached. What right has an inclusive left to dismiss as "Roman Catholic social conservatism" anything outside of the bien pensant bourgeois bohemian ethos from which it derives its authority? What about seeing some radical potential in working-class Catholic sociality?

I wasn't aware of Burnham's gay record though, which is pretty unforgivable. Maybe he is a cunt after all, I just think that unless you want to abandon the northern/Scottish/East London working-class as a whole, you have to see some potential in a figure able to speak to and from this constituency, ie. the bits of the electoral map that are still shaded red but going purpler and purpler by the day.

socrates - mortal kombat said...

en mi opinión tampoco estoy convencido de Burnham-on me diras por que ? pero es un simple pensar

David W. Kasper said...

The problem with the "white working class" angle is that it isn't open to any nuance. It's an empty meme based on impressionistic ressentiment and status anxiety, wide open to use by the most reactionary forces out there, be they BNP, Tories or New Labour. It reduces class issues to white identity politics, shifts the focus/blame onto more oppressed groups, and turns social relations into a Nationalist 'time spirit' that was never that cohesive anyway. Socialism isn't a heritage industry, and even in the days of William morris there wasn't really a cohesive 'white working class heartland'. That was a racial ideology used to generate loyalty to Empire interests (and less overtly, Cold War agendas).

Similarly for religious moralists claiming socialism as their own. Even in areas where Catholicism has served (?) as a 'buffer' from wider oppression - like Glasgow or Liverpool - it's still been a repressive force that many are happy to see the back of. Priest extortion, Magdalene Homes, back-alley abortions and gay teenagers thrown out into the street aren't my idea of socialism. Neither is patriarchal one-earner 'nuclear family' - a transient phase of domestic labour organisation, which is 'under threat' partly because it wasn't exactly that harmonious in the first place. As is the case with employment based on manufacturing or mining. They had so many bitter strikes partly because they were horrible, dehumanizing, life-shortening jobs.

We may have a 'lost' sense of community, but all the above were failed forms of community due to their own glaring contradictions. Pinning the 'blame' for their failure elsewhere amounts to social amnesia, albeit consciously ideological. We need new forms of collectivity, but harking back to nostalgic, revisionist, chauvinistic models will only serve to make that impossible. We may just end just conserving tepid bathwater, to the neglect of everything else. If Labour continue that neglect, then that just proves their utter irrelevance to the working class; and their complicity in erasing socialism from the public arena.

Alex Niven said...

Right, at further risk of pissing people off, I'm afraid I disagree pretty strongly on some of these points in ways that I think are important to elucidate at this juncture.

So it seems to me that a lot of the above comments fall into three broad, related traps, all of which I think have quite a bit to do with the paralysis of the left at this moment in time:

1) Scepticism without any counterbalancing sense of constructive suggestion;

2) A blanket dismissal of all forms of historical memory as "nostalgic";

3) Mistaking parts for the whole: ie. dismissing tendencies with unseemly aspects (religion, local identity, heritage) in toto without attempting to recover their radical potential.

Of course socialism isn't a "heritage industry", and of course the notion of any working class is subject to caveatisation. But you throw the baby out with the tepid bathwater (to extend your analogy!) when you use this as the basis for total rejection of past forms of collectivity. New forms of collectivity will not just spring magically out of the air. They will emerge as they have always done through a new synthesis of inherited ideas in a theoretical context (as was the case for all the radical thinkers from Montaigne to Marx to Morris), and, in the much more important context of grassroots responses to injustice, through a new, revised channeling of the moral and political heritages that are in many cases grounded in religion, the old union movement, and cultural histories (music, sport, poetry, architecture).

The imprecation to conjure up with something completely new is an incredibly damaging one that serves neoliberalism and its attendant ideology of atemporalism very well. Coming up with something utterly innovative without any recourse to the past is only achieved in spurious terms by the marketing executive and the PR guru: for anyone else in reality it is a total impossibility. The illusion that things are otherwise has barred the left from its heritage and cut off its limbs in the postmodern period.

All this might seem like a rather misplaced commentary on Andy Burnham. Most probably he is a wanker, and maybe his social conservatism can't be explained away or excused. I don't know enough about this side of him yet. I just think that in dismissing him, or more importantly any kind of white working class or Catholic or national/regional sentiment is unsubtle, unfounded in terms of the alternative religious or ethical standpoint you're making the criticism from (ie. if you don't have one then what are the terms of the critique?), and also has the likely immediate practical effect of alienating the vast majority of actual working class people in the UK, who are the way they are and don't conform to a bien pensant leftist worldview that is in any case vaguely defined to the point of being very nearly wholly nebulous at the present moment.

Of course we shouldn't go the other way and accept the racist, homophobic, anti-abortion aspects of these sorts of tendencies: I just think to achieve anything valuable politically you have to have the courage to walk into the territory where these impulses are coming from and try to redirect and humanise and radicalise rather than leaving this ground to the Cameronite Conservatives or the far-right.

I hope that makes sense. I really feel that this stuff is important, but I don't want to sound like an arrogant chump.

David W. Kasper said...

Your three points wasn't what I was getting at really - I'm just getting increasingly weary of certain 'trends' in British left discourse & historical interpretations I've seen develop in recent years. They seem to be coming to a head lately - especially as the (soft or hard) left is more defensive than ever. If anything, is on it's way to making it's agenda (?) much less inclusive. I'm not arguing for a scorched-earth rebirth, but some continuities have been privileged over others, and they're leading to further impasse, and a lot of contradictions. I reckon that's why the UK left has hit the brick wall it has. The Labour party is seriously 'getting in the way' now - especially since Blair, PFI, and their wars. New Labour made the party a hollow shell, but the left ( and the working class) still points its compass in their direction by default.

Bhurnam really is a wanker BTW - an ultra-Blarite, who's now smelling an opportunity and selling himself as the 'aspirational Scouser' with 'roots' in religious community and the 'heartlands'. Pandering to elderly w-class voters scared of Tory health policies. He was quite keen on NHS PFI etc. before we all learned to hate Tories again. And yes, his voting record is disgraceful. He's a ambitupous yes-man without two ideas to rub together.

David W. Kasper said...

Apologies for all the typos BTW - computer's just died, so comments a bit rushed under time limits!

David W. Kasper said...

Plus skepticism is the true 'heritage' of the left! If 'we' lose that, we don't have much else left IMO. According too much blame on neoliberalism & postmodernism has the side-effect of making previous epochs look far rosier than they actually were, and supposedly more 'traditional' than the transeint stages they were.

I'm 'anti-heritage', but very 'pro-history'. Heritage is history's PR department. Religion (whose increasing influence on all kinds of things worries me) has had that dept covered for millenia. Beware the vicars!

Alex Niven said...

Sorry me internet's been on the blink.

On 6 days out of 7 I agree that the Labour Party is a large part of the problem rather than a fringe part of the solution. Funnily enough though, when I do see some potential there, it's usually on the grounds of heritage. By this I mean that we do have a socialist heritage (just about) in this country. Why should we let the managerial wankers and the New Labour automaton's redefine a centuries old tradition of dissent that people lived and died for?

I suppose the disagreement is really one of degree. I just think there's quite a pernicious cultural atmosphere right now of demanding new, more expansive alternatives without a sense of where they might actually come from on the ground. For me I think it would be a very productive step forward if people started to look at actual sites of working class friction with neoliberalism - which would include religion, old left residues, football culture, etc - and try somehow to synthesis a unified oppositional alternative out of these actually existing elements. The other more pervasive left attitude just seems like Deleuzian onanism, bohemian dreams of infinity that give way pretty quickly to dreams of a job in the creative industries and a self-sufficient country pile in Sussex.

I agree with your point about scepticism. Of course negative critique is what cunts like us do best! I just think in this epoch the scales have swung too far in that direction, that there needs to be some counterbalancing sense of constructive optimism, belief, unity, even naivety, or we'll very quickly succumb to the rather paralysing deconstructive freefall that is the legacy of postmodernism and hence also neoliberalism.

David W. Kasper said...

"there's quite a pernicious cultural atmosphere right now of demanding new, more expansive alternatives without a sense of where they might actually come from on the ground."

- I think this is as much a problem of the 'revolutionary' left as much as parliamentary parties (and the academic left, under pressure to churn out shiny new 'theories' to make a career splash, hence the search for novelty you've noted). But the problem with sub-communities (committees) like unions, religion, footy fandom etc is that they're as 'managerial' and corporate as anything now. I think forms of w-class resistance/compromise we got used to in the 20th century have clung on to dead-ends, at the expense of more potentially fruitful movements.

It's cheesy, but history really is a weapon. One victory of neoliberalism is the removal of historical contexts and continuities from the 'public memory'. Hysteria over recent terrorism, crime, riots, deficits etc as though they're 'unprecedented' being a case in point. It all goes into blocking understanding oneself as part of a class that has faced very similar forms of oppression (under different banners) for centuries.

I find a lot of blokes can talk in great detail about the corporate dealings of their local football team, but if you asked them who owned the city centre, they wouldn't have a clue - even if it directly results in their unemployment. I'm shocked by the amount of people who don't realise what the Tory party has just done to the NHS. I'm sure everyone will be moaning about it, but treating it as 'normal' ten years from now. Neither Labour nor unions will do anything to reverse it either - the 'public language' for that is being wiped away as I write.

David W. Kasper said...

A lot of recent discourse reminds me of those post-apocalyptic stories, where they patch together artefacts of the pre-apocalyptic past - and eventually build a religion from it.

Verifaction: "listless hericy" - LOL

Alex Niven said...

the problem with sub-communities (committees) like unions, religion, footy fandom etc is that they're as 'managerial' and corporate as anything now

I agree with the gist but not the extent of this judgment. All of these organs are compromised and infected by capitalistic corporate culture, sure, but I would still argue that there is a substantial qualitative and ethical difference between, say, the NUT and RBS, or Rowan Williams and Rupert Murdoch. And I see some potential in trying to identify what that difference in value is and looking to emphasise it, rather than abandoning both sides as two relative kinds of evil.

But I couldn't agree more about history. I just wonder how historical sense can be maintained in the minds of an entire populace without some form of heritage, which I would define as history given personal and communitarian relevance. I don't think many better models have suggested themselves than the nexus of union movement/religion/popular and alternative culture, and I can't see why you shouldn't be able to renovate and reinvent these traditions. Moreover, I think there's a danger of privileging a certain kind of academic/liberal establishment discourse when you deny these popular heritages and gesture at inchoate new theories to make a "career splash" as you say. If any academics did actually come up with a new theory I found persuasive it might be a different matter, but I'm still waiting!

Unfortunately, I share your pessimism about the popular view of the destruction of the NHS. My original thought about Burnham was that he might be able to make the sort of populist pronouncements necessary to make the electorate as a whole angry.